Pumpkin head by joyce carol oates
Pumpkin Head by Joyce Carol Oates
In late March, there’d been a sleet storm throughout north-central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. But since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glistening to the air. Often, she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside, not remembering how she’d got there. For long minutes, she would stare as the colors faded and a glassy light emerged from the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light, and in weak moments she thought, This is the crossing-over time. She watched, not knowing what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glistening to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.
This October evening, before the sun had entirely set, a pair of headlights turned in to the driveway, some distance away by the road. She was startled into alertness — at first not sure where she was. Then she remembered: Anton Kruppev was dropping by to see her.
Dropping by, he’d said. Or maybe she’d said, Why don’t you drop by?
She couldn’t make out his face. He was driving a pickup truck with white lettering on one side. He climbed down from the driver’s seat in the high cab and lurched toward her on the shadowy path — a tall male scarecrow figure with a misshapen Halloween pumpkin for a head.
What a shock! Hadley backed away, not sure what she was seeing. A grinning pumpkin head on a man’s shoulders, its leering cutout eyes not lit from within, like a jack-o’-lantern, but dark, glassy. And the voice issuing through the grinning slash-mouth in heavily accented English: “Ma’am? Is correct address? You are — lady of the house?”
She laughed, nervously. She supposed she was meant to laugh.
With grating mock gravity, the voice persevered: “You are — resident here, Ma’am? I am — welcome here? Yes?”
It was a joke. One of Anton Kruppev’s awkward jokes. He’d succeeded in frightening Hadley, though probably that hadn’t been his intention — probably he’d just meant to make her laugh. It was embarrassing that she’d been genuinely frightened, for she had known perfectly well that Anton was coming. And who else but Anton Kruppev would show up like this, with a Halloween pumpkin for a head?
At the co-op, Anton was the most eager and courteous of workers. He was the one who joked with customers, and laughed at his own jokes; he was boyish, vulnerable, and touching. His halting speech was itself a kind of laughter, not fully intelligible yet contagious. For all his clumsiness, you could tell that he was an exceptionally intelligent man. Hadley could see that he’d gone to painstaking trouble carving the pumpkin head: it was large, bulbous, weirdly veined and striated, twice the size of a normal man’s head, with triangular eyes, a triangular nose, and a mouth studded with fang-teeth. Somehow, he’d managed to force the thing over his head — Hadley couldn’t quite see how.
“How ingenious, Anton! Did you carve it yourself?”
This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppev. For you had to say something to alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh.